While many Indianapolis private schools were among the state’s very highest scoring on this year’s ISTEP test, a surprisingly high number of them saw lower scores than in 2013.

Statewide, about 43 percent of about 300 private schools did worse this year than last year. In Indianapolis, it was a majority of private schools — 55 percent — that lost ground from the prior year. (Find your school’s ISTEP scores here. Or see a sortable list of Indianapolis private school scores at the bottom of this story.)

There some factors to consider in those results.

ISTEP is only given in grades 3 to 8, so private high schools, some of which tend to be high-performing, are not included. Also, not all private schools with elementary grades take the state test. It is not required for private schools. And many of the schools that lost ground from the prior year were only down slightly from where they were.

That appeared to be the case for several Indianapolis Catholic schools that dropped less than two percentage points from the prior year but still saw more than 90 percent of kids pass.

Helping fuel strong Catholic school results each year is consistency, said Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

“Students who attend Catholic schools are well prepared and do well on the test,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with what we get with kids who come to our schools. We get them early and they tend to stay. When we can get kids in early grades and keep them, we do a very good job of teaching them the basic building blocks to be good students through their entire lives.”

In Marion County about one-third of private schools rank in the top quarter for percent passing both English and math on ISTEP among more than 1,800 schools who took the exam statewide. That percentage is four times higher than the percentage of schools ranked in the state’s top quarter for all eight Marion County townships combined (8 percent) and almost eight times more than Indianapolis Public Schools (5 percent) and all of the county’s charter schools combined (4 percent).

Five of the state’s top 10 schools for percent passing ISTEP were private schools, including Indianapolis’ Hasten Hebrew Academy, ranked eighth with 98.2 percent passing.

Principal Miriam Gettinger said Hasten made a concerted effort to reach for very high scores this year that paid off.

The school has had a long run of very high passing rates in the range of 90 to 95 percent passing, but last year slipped to a still very high 89.3 percent.

Gettinger said the staff went to work figuring out what their students needed help with.

“After last year we did some very careful data analysis of our school and their scores,” she said.

The school does not have access to diagnostic tests that public schools use to prepare for the state test, Gettinger said, so teachers created their own mini-tests with ISTEP-like questions focused on areas they identified as weaknesses for their students.

One example was math problem-solving. Teachers wrote ISTEP-style questions that students took each week to check on how well they were learning the concepts from class and figuring out how to apply them for the state exam.

In writing, students got more practice in ISTEP-like essay questions, writing narrative or persuasive essays each week.

At the same time, Hasten is solidifying a curriculum change it made about five years ago, with a heavier focus on critical thinking skills and writing in all subjects, even art, music and physical education.

“At the end of gym, they’ll write a reflection on the activity or a social scenario, like competition,” Gettinger said.

The curriculum changes, she said, made Hasten a stronger school.

“We absolutely will not teach to a test,” Gettinger said.

In Marion County, eight of the top 10 ranked schools for ISTEP passing rate are private schools, along with two IPS schools: Sidener Academy, a magnet school for gifted students which ranked No. 1 statewide at 100 percent passing, and School 84, a Center for Inquiry magnet school, which ranked 20th statewide with 96.3 percent passing.

Most of the county’s top 10 are Catholic schools, led by Immaculate Heart of Mary School on Indianapolis’ north side at 94.7 percent passing.

Immaculate Heart of Mary School had the highest ISTEP passing rate of any Catholic school in Indianapolis
PHOTO CREDIT: Scott Elliott

A factor that might be helping Catholic school performance is a tradition of strong parental involvement. That might be partly driven by the desire to get the most out of the tuition parents pay, said Otolski, but it’s also because of an openness to parents in the school and an emphasis on involving them in student learning.

“If you’re paying $4,000 or $5,000 a year to send your kid to a grade school, I suppose you might be more motivated to pay attention to what your kids are doing,” he said. “But every parent wants their child to succeed. Catholic schools are really open to inviting parents to take part inside the classroom. Expectations are set early on that there will be a lot of work and parents are going to have to be involved to guide children to learn good study habits.”

The top scoring township school — Lawrence Township’s Amy Beverland Elementary School — ranked 14th best in the county and 186th statewide at 90.2 percent passing.

In other states, few private schools participate in the state testing program, but most in Indiana do. Private schools in Marion County have long been among the highest scorers on ISTEP. Enrollment at many private schools, especially Catholic schools, is growing thanks to Indiana’s fast-growing voucher program, which allows low- and middle-income families to use tax dollars to pay a portion of private school tuition bills for their children.

Critics say a big reason private schools do better on ISTEP is because they can be selective, picking which students to enroll and expelling those who fail to behave or achieve academically. Several of the county’s private schools use vouchers to serve significantly poorer students, who tend to have more problems in school. But some of those schools still scored well on ISTEP.

Otolski said it might be true that some Catholic schools have demographic advantages that help them perform well on ISTEP. But that’s not always the case.

“We’ve got kids all across the economic spectrum,” he said. “We have plenty of schools that are toward the core of the city that have just as much of the same kinds of difficulties as public schools.”